High Life review — Arty sci-fi lost in space

Directed by Clare Denis | Written by Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox, and Nick Laird | 113 min | Netflix

Clare Denis leaves behind her colonial concerns and her French language films—her most recent being the diverting Let The Sunshine In—for an English debut set in deep space.

To call it retro-futurist would be a stretch, but it does share themes with 1970s science fiction like Silent Runningstrained through an awkward art-house sensibility. As a storyteller, Denis is concerned with human drama, but this pretentious effort doesn’t actually deliver much.

In the beginning the fragmented narrative promises mystery: Monte (Robert Pattinson, working the close-ups) is alone in a run-down spaceship with a toddler, growing a garden and managing a regular report to home base. But is this really a space ship, or just a staged recreation? The canvas “space suits” aren’t airtight, all the computer tech is decades old, and the guts of the ship looks like a boiler room in 1930s Brooklyn. This is science fiction by someone who could care less about the science.

We flash back to earlier in the mission when the ship was filled with occupants—convicts who agreed to a trip to a black hole, and while en route have their reproductive capabilities tested by the obsessive Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) in the face of high levels of radiation. However, the prisoner/travellers are forbidden to have sex—a deprivation that’s never explained—and are instead given access to the primitive predecessor of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron, a masturbatory “fuck box.” A highlight is a scene of Dr Dibs’ taking it for a spin, but we never get a sense of how it works for the men.

How Monte ended up alone aboard the ship with a child is the thread we wait for the flashback scenes to reveal, but along the way Denis isn’t especially bothered by realism, plausibility, or plot mechanics. What remains is a stagey, frequently dull character study, but we never get to know or care for any of the characters enough to relate to their motivations.

Maybe the most compassionate figure here is Tcherny, played by André Benjamin, but frankly I’d rather Benjamin was back in Georgia working on fresh sounds from Outkast than showing up in arty experiments like this.

For one brief, shining moment it looks like we might cross over into Event Horizon territory, but the violence, while sudden and upsetting, is too infrequent to push this film toward something genuinely visceral—and this despite the film’s fascination with bodily fluids. By the time one character throws themselves out of the airlock, you’ll either add their suicidal reasoning to the list of the film’s frustratingly unanswered questions, or maybe you’ll just wish you could join them in the cold grip of space rather than sit through much more of this.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.